Montréal has been widely recognized as a fashion hub, a former fashion-manufacturing centre, and the home of many Canadian fashion retailers. But what is still relatively unknown is its emerging concentration on fashion and technology.
Barbara Layne is the director of Studio subTela, part of the Hexagram – Centre for Research-Creation in Media Arts and Technologies at Concordia University, where she leads a creative team of engineers and textile artists who design interactive textile arts that combine traditional materials and digital technologies.
In her work, natural materials are woven in alongside microcomputers and sensors to create surfaces that are receptive and responsive to external stimuli. Innovative textiles feature a flexible array of Light Emitting Diodes that present changing patterns and texts through the structure of cloth. Wireless transmission systems have also been developed to support real time communication. In both wearable systems and site related installations, textiles are used to address the social dynamics of fabric and human interaction.
I met Barbara at her studio in Montréal and got a demonstration of her prototypes.
K.S.: Could you tell me about your work?
B.L.: I come out of the textile arts world, not fashion. And it just so happens that a lot of my things of the past 10 yeast have ended up as garments. As a textile artist, I worked a lot with mixed media and experimental structures, and finally came back to weaving, after leaving it for 30 years. I was interested in new technology and I just wanted to see how I could weave one light into a piece of fabric. Most of the things you see here are hand-woven, and the technology is embedded during the weaving process, so that it’s completely integrated into the structure of the fabric. I am interested in the way a circuit board has an x-y axis, and it’s the same with weaving as the weft weaves in perpendicular to the warp.
I work with a team of three to seven graduate students, from Engineering, Fine Arts, and occasionally Computer Science and Design. I do the concept development, designing, fundraising, exhibition installation, and lecturing, and the assistants do most of the handwork and the technology. When I first started working with smart textiles, I learned programming and basic circuit design, but now I don’t have time to keep up with the rapidly changing technologies so I have a technician who handles most of that.
A lot of the techniques that we’re using now we learned from Joanna Berzowska who is really important, not just at Concordia, but globally, for the innovative research she’s done in smart textiles. She’s the Chair of the Department of Computational Design and has been very generous in sharing information with us.
All the garments are connected to outlets, are they also battery-operated?
Yes, all pieces can work with either AC power from a wall or with batteries for live presentations. We seem to do more exhibitions than catwalk shows and batteries are not practical when in a long-term gallery exhibition.
This is a touch-pad dress. You can draw on the sleeve and the image will show up on the paired LED dress. But it only works when there is a body in it, so we made this little touchpad box for demonstrating the technique in the lab or in a gallery setting. The touchpad idea came from Hesam Khoshneviss who I’ve worked with for 8 years here in the lab. Hesam is from Electrical Engineering and he came up with this idea of the touchpad that has little gaps between the positives and negatives, so when your finger touches the pad, the electricity will flow from the negative threads through your finger to the positive threads. It transmits the coordinates of your finger on the grid wirelessly to the dress.
Wirelessly how, by Bluetooth?
The system we use now is XBee, which is another wireless platform. We previously used Bluetooth which is not as reliable and stable for our needs and now use XBee exclusively.
Currente Calamo is a series of four garments that connect to each other. Each has its own wireless address, and if you have the app and enter the numeric address into your phone, you could change the message on the LED array of the garment in real time.
For this black-and-white dress, there is a laptop in the room with the dress, and a person can create a little animation in real-time and send it wirelessly to the dress. These works just came back from an exhibition in Oaxaca, where people could play with many of the pieces in the show. Museums more and more like things that are interactive, that the gallery visitor can play with.
Are there pieces where you have the touchpad on the same garment or is it usually on a separate piece?
Usually on a separate garment. The next series of work will involve a lot of different things interacting with each other. It’ll be more random too because we will use antenna to determine the interactions.
It sounds more choreographed.
In a way, but it will be also more random, because the antenna will create dynamic and unpredictable responses based on signal location. There will not only be garments but also objects and wall panels, hopefully all playing with each other. We’re just starting this research and it’s fairly complex, so we’ll see how it goes. Creating flexible antennas is a whole other thing.
Can you tell me more about the antenna technology?
We’re going to use a technique called beam-forming, which uses on a networked antenna system. We will be working with an antenna specialist because the parameters are very specific. The length, width and materials will determine the data we receive, so we will first need to make some prototypes, then find someone who understands what we are trying to do and can help us realize the possibilities. Antennas can both transmit data and also receive.
How is that different from Bluetooth technology?
Bluetooth is also a transceiver that makes a connection on a certain channel, within a given area. Our antenna will use the XBee system, but will have more variability since it can trigger changes based on motion, directionality and proximity. It can also respond to the many different objects within the environment. With Bluetooth, you’re either connected or you are not. Beam-forming will also depend on how you’re moving through space and your relationship to other things or other people. This is all very new and is a risky thing to do. First we will finish our experiments with the Tajima Laying Machine and try some antenna prototypes, then we’ll get an antenna specialist and go from there. It’s going to be very social, compared to the things we have now, which are individual or paired for the most part. This will be a truly community-based research.
It’s very technical, down to the material.
The weave structure we do keep everything from getting short-circuited because we keep all the positives on one side and the negatives on the other in a single layer of fabric: that’s not being done by anybody else right now. And it’s dependent on the very structure of the cloth – knowing which threads to pick up when, and move about – we’re able to do that.
This prototype black dress is being created with the Tajima Laying Machine, recently purchased with a Canadian Foundation for Innovation grant. It lays a conductive silver thread on the surface of the fabric, without having any of the conductive bits on the back. Electricity can be conducted through the laid floral lines – this design will be a huge touchpad with glowing lights located inside the pleats. Depending on how you touch or even when it touches itself the lights will respond by changing from softer to brighter, or it can even change colours. Recently we’ve been studying museum collections of cloth that has been laid, or couched with gold and silver threads. We’re studying historic things to learn about design and the culture of who could afford to wear silver and gold, as well as the technical and visual aspects.
What can you control with this type of thread embroidery?
All the conductive thread does is conduct electricity. And that can be attached to sensing devices (input, such as the touchpad) or outputs such as light or sound. To make flexible garments you really don’t want to use wires that are stiff and break when you move, so we’re using this flexible silver thread. It has a silk core that’s been spun with copper and then tinned with silver. We buy the thread from a company in Germany who originally created it for the repair or creation of fancy formal wear for royalty, clergy, and military.
In the field of smart fabrics many innovative products are being developed so that people can create electronic textiles much easier and faster. In the past, we had to prepare the LEDs to use with silver threads, which took 45 minutes per light. Now, LEDs are made with two little holes in them (one positive and one negative) so that you only have to pass the thread through one of the existing holes to be able to integrate it into the circuit.
So there are manufacturers now who are improving the technology?
They’re making many new things for wearables. Previously there was little interest in wearable electronics, but now there is a big demand on commercial levels, for spectacular events such as Burning Man, and for art/fashion/craft. There are all kinds of new things being developed.
How would you clean these garments?
Everything in our studio has been hand-washed. You must remove the battery, but all the other technology can be gently washed. Of course, everything has to be 100% dry before it is used again.
You are an artist and a researcher, do you also have commercial clients?
I don’t sell anything nor do consultation. I mainly do research in smart fabrics and show the results at various techno-fashion events, exhibitions in galleries and museums, and occasionally teach workshops in basic electronics and soft circuitry.
What are some of the exhibitions you’ve done?
I just held my first major solo show at the Museo de Textile in Oaxaca Mexico. It took over 10 years to assemble a full collection. Most of my exhibitions are international as I don’t get invited to many events in Canada, which I find quite odd. The other venues have been Peru, Argentina, Mexico, Australia Europe, Turkey, and the US, but almost never in Canada.
Is it because it’s a new field here?
I don’t think that it’s that new here because there have been many innovators here in Canada, starting with Steve Mann who has been working for many decades with wearable technology. I simply don’t know why there aren’t more exhibitions in Canada. Valérie Lamontagne curated an exhibition of wearables for the Olympics – that one I was in – but other than that, I haven’t seen many in Canada, even though there is a critical mass of people working here.
In Montréal specifically?
Yes, and around Concordia more specifically. It’s growing everywhere, but Montréal was an early hub for this research. I first started doing this about 15 years ago, with a few ideas but no knowledge of the tools and techniques. I invited Joanna to come up from Boston to provide a consultation. Shortly thereafter she was hired at Concordia and it’s been great to have someone here to exchange ideas and technical information
In Montréal the Hexagram Institute received significant funding form the Canadian and Quebec governments. Wearable technology has been an important research axis within the Institute. We were fortunate to receive funding, which can become quite expensive and are lucky to be in a place that recognizes the relationship between arts and technology. I think it’s partly because of high profile organizations such as the Cirque du Soleil and the Daniel Langlois Foundation. Our governments acknowledge the economic and cultural value of electronic arts and have invested in innovative projects situated at the intersection of art, science, and technology.
So it’s part of the same funding wave that Quebec government dedicated to boosting the technology industry in general?
Yes. Some of it comes from the Canadian Foundation for Innovation (CFI), which provided a new infrastructure (building and equipment). The CFI funds were matched by the province of Quebec, along with other partner funding. My main source of research funding has primarily been the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council and Concordia University. My studio is located in Concordia’s Engineering-Fine Arts Building, an architecture that encourages the bringing together of arts and Engineering researchers through it’s connected hallways.
With this future vision in mind of bridging the “unbridgeable”?
Yes. It’s not been easy, but I’ve been lucky to find an engineering professor who is appreciative of the arts and is interested in partnering with me. Most of the graduate students I’ve worked have strong mathematics backgrounds, but also instinctually understand mechanics too. Many of the students who have worked in the studio are able to build the bridges between art and science and that is a desirable position right now. Industry is looking for people with skills that can marry the material and the digital.
How long does it take to make one piece?
Everything we make is a prototype, requiring a lot of research and failures. We don’t make two of anything. It used to take perhaps 150 hours when we had to prepare all of the LEDs by hand, and now just the production of a garment may takes 60 hours, however the design work takes longer, as does the testing and troubleshooting
So you start by creating and prepping the fabrics and then do the design and testing?
Yes, in general, although it is not a linear evolution. We’ll start with an idea, then a design on paper and we’ll make the fabric, cut out and sew the dress. We know where the LEDs will go, or in the case of the new touchpad dress, we have to decide where the touchpad lines go, then we make the dress, incorporating components and putting even more electronics on after the dress is made. We go back and forth between the electronics and the dress construction. The idea often changes as we go. One extreme example is the keyboard dress, which started out as a skirt, then became a courier satchel and ultimately ended up as a dress.
This is one of our earlier successful works, Jacket Antics (2007), it’s hard to see when you’re close-up but when you’re farther away, you can read the message that is scrolling across. The two jackets become a multi-person message board. It only happens when the pair is holding hands, and when they stop holding hands, they have their own message. We’ve invented a weave structure that keeps the un-insulated positive and conductive threads from touching each other when they intersect. This is linen fabric, because in the beginning we were trying to solder these components on, linen was the only material that wouldn’t burn with a soldering iron. We just kept using it because we liked it, even though we don’t solder anymore, we just use knotting and gluing. Almost all of the work that you see in the studio is linen because it’s got a certain weight to it that can support the heavier components and we like the look of it, too.
How did this whole thing originate? Did you want to create things that have electronics built into them?
It wasn’t just for the electronics, but for the advancement of the textile arts. Throughout history textiles have pushed technological achievements. Like the new synthetic fabrics that came about in the 1940s, really changed fashion as well as many things in our everyday lives. When I started in electronic textiles, I was interested in making something current, not so much about futuristic fabrics, but what is possible to do today. At first it was about trying to embed just one light in a flexible fabric, and then it became a whole array of lights.
I am also interested in the significance of making techno-fabrics like these: what does it mean to make garments that are responsive on a socio-cultural level? With the Jacket Antics piece, the images and texts that are going through the female jacket are about inventions made in Canada. And the male jacket has innovations of whatever country we’re visiting at the time. Currently the garment is programmed to list innovations in Australia, but we’ve done Germany and others. We can examine the technological developments of our own and other countries, but when the wearers hold hands, we find an entirely different text that describes a collaborative technological event that happened between countries. This additional layer of content, of meaning, is particularly interesting to me.
How do you conceptualize the dress design itself?
I don’t have a background in pattern making although I have good sewing skills. I’ll often go to a Vogue pattern and adapt it to whatever it is that we need. One exception is the Currente Calamo series, which was designed by one of Ying Gao’s students at UQAM, Isabelle Giroux, who is now a designer in Brussels. The rest of the garments are adaptations of commercial sewing patterns.
Have you thought about working with other designers, has there been interest from the designer community in Montreal?
Marie Saint Pierre was initially interested in collaboration, but then became too busy. At first I was hesitant to work with designers as I wanted to be able to fully control to the designs, but I can now see the advantages in working with designers.
Same with dancers– I get requests from a variety of dancers who want something made, but this depends on timing and what would work within the parameters of the grant I am working on. I am not interested in just providing costumes, but in developing a real collaboration where the content is shared. I’ve only worked with one dancer so far.
What kind of dance piece was it?
It was a contemporary dance piece with Yacov Sharir from Austin Texas. This early piece was a jacket with an LED display. Someone sitting off-stage would transmit words onto the back of his jacket, and the other dancers could see it but Yacov couldn’t. The dancers would respond to the words being transmitted and Yacov had to go with what was happening on stage, being dictated by somebody off-stage.
Wearable Absence is collaboration between myself and Janis Jeffries at Goldsmith College in London. It’s a jacket that has four different biosensors: heart rate, rate of respiration, temperature, and galvanic skin response that measures moisture in your hands when you’re nervous. It works similar to a lie-detector test. It analyzes your emotional state: for example if the sensors determine that you are tired and depressed, it’ll go up to the internet to a pre-existing database, based on the person you’ve set it to, it could be your mom or your lover, who-ever you want. Throughout the day it will check your responses, assign you an emotional state, and connect to that database to bring you what you might need at the moment. And that can come in the form of a scrolling text on your sleeve, it could be sounds from the speakers in the hood such as the voice of your mother or her favourite song, or whatever can lull you back down. We made this project before smart phones were available, and in the pocket there is a little PDA device that can present videos and photos.
It’s like the magic cape!
It was really a challenge. Janis’ team in London organized the database. They built the architecture and populated it with three prototype characters. My team developed the sensors, the jacket and integrated the database with the jacket system.